Bill Karsten is the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and councillor for Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia
Less than two months from a federal election, Canadians find themselves considering a vast array of national challenges. One truly national crisis keeps rising to the top of headlines: the increasing difficulty Canadians face in finding housing they can afford.
This housing affordability challenge is unique among those that voters will consider as they head to the polls in October. Despite being national in scope, we rarely talk about it in any other context than local.
Canadians understand this challenge almost exclusively at the municipal level, from the most frequent case studies of Vancouver and Toronto, to communities such as Charlottetown, PEI, or Kelowna, B.C. – which have gained attention for their struggles with vanishing vacancy rates or soaring rental costs.
Recent polling conducted by Abacus Data for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) shows that the inability to find housing that is affordable is a local concern in a way no other national challenge can match. When asked what issues most impact respondents’ quality of life in regards to where they live, housing affordability was the leading response. Municipal leaders are on the front lines of this challenge, and communities of every size suffer when citizens can’t afford to put a roof over their heads.
Many argue that the main challenge is one of supply – not enough affordable accommodation is being built to satisfy the ever-mounting demand. And supply-boosting solutions matter. But municipal leaders across the country are urging their federal counterparts to create space for another approach: Supporting Canada’s rental market, and not just by building new units.
Canadians living in big cities such as Toronto or Vancouver have watched with increasing concern as rental rates for newer apartments rise. Older market rental housing generally provides lower rents, compared with rented condos or newer rental properties. The problem is that many of these units are falling into disrepair as they age. Currently, 76 per cent of Canada’s rental units are more than 36 years old. Aside from a small amount of social or affordable housing, the vast majority of this purpose-built rental housing is owned and managed by the private sector. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of rental units with rents under $750 per month declined by almost 400,000.
That’s why, ahead of this fall’s federal election, all parties should promote housing affordability across Canada with measures to support and improve aging, low-cost market rental housing. Through federal tax incentives and grants, such a program would preserve existing privately-owned older market rental housing stock and avoid the deterioration, “renovictions” or conversions of tens of thousands of existing units that would further reduce the rental supply.
And the spin-off benefits are compelling. By encouraging energy-efficient renovations alongside core repairs in these units, Canada could begin a successful transition to a nation where older housing stock is as energy efficient as new builds. With 12 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions coming from homes and buildings, it is a critical piece of the climate puzzle.
To be sure, preserving market rental housing is just one important path to improving housing affordability for Canadians. Federal leadership should help seniors who need it to affordably and safely age in their own homes – especially in rural communities where downsizing options are few – by offsetting the cost of modest home improvements such as grab bars, ramps and lifts.
Party leaders must expand on efforts to provide surplus federal lands for the development of affordable and social housing. Removing the cost of land from development can drive the deep affordability that’s needed in our communities.
Housing for low- and moderate-income Canadians is yet another important facet to this debate, as market-based solutions will only achieve so much for the disadvantaged, especially those experiencing homelessness. That means maintaining the priorities and funding levels of the national housing strategy FCM helped shape – while addressing key gaps for Indigenous people and for vulnerable Canadians who need supportive housing.
The resounding message to the federal parties seeking to lead Canada into 2020 and beyond is this: To solve a national crisis in housing affordability, think local and work with municipal leadership. Canadians will see the difference in their communities, where it matters most.
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